AUBURN — When Mike Littlejohn settles into the workshop at his store, Carbaugh Jewelers, it transports him back in time.
Littlejohn creates, repairs and redesigns jewelry at the same well-worn, wooden workbench as the store’s previous three owners.
He even uses some of the same tools passed down by Edward Little, Charles Carbaugh and Bob Carbaugh — each of whom trained his successor — in a chain dating back to 1901.
Littlejohn and his staff will celebrate the store’s 120th anniversary with an open house Friday from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. at 108 E. 7th St., the store’s home since 1917.
“It’s something I have been very proud to have been part of, and certainly proud to have owned this business, and to be the caretaker of this business during the time that we’re in,” he said. “One hundred twenty years in any business is a feat, to me.”
His workspace in the rear of the store “is where I’m the most at home. This is what I’m known for,” Littlejohn said.
“The history of the bench alone is quite remarkable,” he said. “This bench was Ed Little’s bench,” and Little, the store’s founder, the father-and-son Carbaughs and now Littlejohn all have left their marks on it.
E.O. Little’s name is stamped inside a top-left drawer where century-old tools hang over the facing.
“You can’t buy a pair of gold shears today that cut like this. … I’ve never had to sharpen this,” Littlejohn said, demonstrating one of the antique implements.
Now one of Auburn’s longest-running institutions, Little's Jewelry Store opened in a storefront facing 7th Street in the former Auburn State Bank building, on the northwest corner of the city’s main intersection. Little moved his business to its present address, one block to the east, in 1917.
In 1915, Charles Carbaugh started working for Little as a high school student. He would remain with the business for 47 years, first becoming a minority partner and then taking full ownership when Little died in 1955.
Charles Carbaugh gave the store his own name in 1960. He would live only two more years, but the name would continue for six decades, because Carbaugh’s son, Bob, returned home in 1962 to carry on the business. Bob and his wife, Betty, owned the store until their retirement in 1997.
Like Charles Carbaugh, Littlejohn began working at the store as a high school student. Beginning in 1980, Littlejohn learned the jeweler’s art and became the store’s owner in 1997.
“I never, really ever, wanted to change the name” because of its long history, Littlejohn said.
Embracing the store’s legacy, Littlejohn has filled its front showroom with displays from its past. They show how it once sold Victrola phonographs and recordings, early radios, even candy and women’s hosiery.
Old photos and advertisements recall the store’s earlier tradition of drawings for lavish prizes such as expensive silverware sets, attracting large crowds to gather outside in the December chill to learn who held the winning tickets.
Littlejohn will revive that tradition by giving away a special diamond pendant he designed for the store’s 120th anniversary.
Littlejohn said it was a “really cool moment” to receive a centennial business award from the state of Indiana in 2002, with Bob and Betty Carbaugh attending to share in the ceremony.
An enthusiastic promoter of downtown businesses, Littlejohn found his own store needed a boost when the economic recession struck in 2008. He came up with the advertising slogan “redesign, re-style, recreate.”
“We were telling people to, rather than buy new, look at what you already own,” he said. “That started a whole movement for this store and, quite literally, saved the business.”
Today, Littlejohn spends the majority of his time at the store’s ancient workbench. On a typical day, 30-40 rings, 30-40 necklaces and 20-some watches arrive in need of repair, he said.
As a survivor of changing business trends, Littlejohn now serves numerous customers from northwest Ohio and other nearby communities that have lost their local jewelry stores. Business may be better than ever.
“I don’t remember ever having this many Christmas orders in September and the first part of October,” Littlejohn said this week. His backlog of repair and redesign jobs has grown to 2 1/2 months.
Littlejohn doesn’t mind at all that a daunting workload awaits him each day.
He said, “The satisfaction I get doing the jobs that I do for people — there’s no better business to be in than to make something and have somebody really like it.”